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Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Meister Brau's Stallion Hitch

Postcard of the "Original Lowenbrau Brewery Wagon" pulled by Westphalian stallions
 at the New York World's Fair 1964-1965. Rudi Kurzenberger is holding the team. 

In 1964, Lowenbrau Brewery of Munich, Germany brought its Westphalian stallions to the New York World’s Fair as a feature for their Lowenbrau Gardens. A few years later, these stallions would live on the Meister Brau, Inc. farm near Grayslake, Illinois.

The team of Westphalian draft horses named Pauli, Michel, Gustl, and Blasi (and backup horse Dammerl) were driven by Rudolf “Rudi” Kurzenberger (1931-1991), a native of Munich, Germany. The horses only understood German and were the first of their kind in the United States.

The Westphalian stallions were prized by the 600-year-old Lowenbrau Brewery. The stallions pulled the brewery’s 5,000-pound beer wagon through the World’s Fair venue, adding to the Bavarian charm of its beer garden. 

Lowenbrau's Westphalian stallions with their new owner, Donald E. Gingery. 
Buffalo News October 16, 1965.

When the World’s Fair ended in 1965, the plan was for the stallions to return to Germany, but they became some of the many fair attractions auctioned and sold. The stallions were purchased by Donald E. Gingery, chairman of the board for Peter Hand Brewery of Chicago. Gingery said, “I just had to have them.” Gingery was part of an investment group that purchased the financially troubled brewery, and renamed it Meister Brau, Inc. after its’ top brand.  

Lowenbrau's team driver, Rudi Kurzenberger, was hired to remain with the horses and take over management of the hitch. As part of the purchase of the stallions, Gingery was required to pledge to the German Trade Minister that the horses would never be separated.

Meister Brau was the only company in the U.S. to own Westphalians and the only hitch to be comprised totally of stallions, which tend to be temperamental. The stallions were also of a rare color called chestnut or sorrel, and featured a white mane and tail. 

Meister Brau's Westphalian hitch in Libertyville, IL, circa 1967.
Driving the team are Rudi Kurzenberger and wife Kathi in traditional Bavarian costumes. Dunn Museum, 2013.11.2.

With Meister Brau's brewery located in Chicago, the Westphalian stallions were brought to Illinois. They were initially stabled in Barrington (location unidentified), and then at the Robert E. Jones farm in Farmer City, Illinois. By early 1967, the stallions were moved to Winds Chant Farm, a Shetland pony farm near Grayslake. 

The 45-acre farm was located east of U.S. Route 45 on the south side of Route 120. About 20-acres of the farm’s former site is now part of Almond Marsh Forest Preserve. 

Star denotes former location of Meister Brau's 45-acre farm near Grayslake, IL. 
Lake County IL Maps Online (Basemap Streets).

The farm was owned and operated by Meister Brau, Inc. The herd of Westphalians increased from five to 14, as Meister Brau imported more stallions and two mares from Germany. In May 1967, the first generation of “American” Westphalians were born at the Lake County, Illinois farm, one filly and one colt, weighing 250 pounds each.

Meister Brau’s Lake County farm was open to the public for horse-drawn wagon rides, meet-and-greets with the famous horses, and tours of the farm. 

Westphalian stallion being walked at Meister Brau's farm near Grayslake, June 1967.
Note the "Meister Brau" on the barrel. Dunn Museum, News Sun Collection.

Westphalian stallions stabled at Meister Brau's farm near Grayslake. Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1967.

Kurzenberger and his team took the stallion hitch—which increased in size from four to six stallions—to advertised appearances at shopping malls, fairs and parades throughout the Midwest. The hitch won awards, including Governor Kerner’s award for excellence in performance at the Illinois State Fair (1966).
Meister Brau hitch at one of its many promotional appearances in the Chicago area.
Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1970.

The brewery wagon and horses were transported in specially built vans. Part of the draw for spectators was to watch the process of the horses being unloaded from the vans, wearing the beautiful harnesses made in Germany for Meister Brau, and hitched to the brewery wagon.

In 1971, Meister Brau leased its famous Westphalian team, wagon and gear to Midwest Park Service, Inc., the operators of Pioneer Park (today’s Blackberry Farm) in Aurora, Illinois. The horses remained stabled at the Lake County farm where Kurzenberger and his team continued to care for them. On days prior to their appearance, the stallions were washed and brushed. They were transported in Meister Brau’s vans to Pioneer Park and became a highlight of visitors to the living history park.

Westphalian stallion hitch at Pioneer Park, Aurora, IL. The Daily Chronicle, October 26, 1972.

In 1972, after over-extending itself in business ventures unrelated to brewing, Meister Brau, Inc. went into bankruptcy. It sold the Meister Brau and Lite brands to Miller Brewing Company, and their iconic Westphalian hitch to Pioneer Park. In 1978, after a decade of financial woes, the brewery closed.

At Pioneer Park, the Westphalians were given special care as there were less than 100 horses of the breed in existence. Only 14 registered stallions remained, eight in Germany and six at Pioneer Park.

Initially, Larry Mitchell, was the driver and trainer of the hitch at Pioneer Park. Brian Morrissey (1940-2023) later took over as driver of the hitch. Morissey was a co-owner and manager of Pioneer Park. The Westphalian stallion hitch made appearances at the park and elsewhere through 1974. If anyone has information about the stallions after 1974, please let me know.

Rudi Kurzenberger with the German-made harness at Meister Brau's farm near Grayslake, May 1967. 
Dunn Museum, News Sun Collection. 

Rudi Kurzenberger and his wife Kathi worked for Meister Brau until about 1972. They remained in Lake County and Rudi became a contractor and built homes. Kathi Kurzenberger shared her Bavarian heritage through yodeling and playing the zither at festivals and restaurants, including The Wunder-Bar Restaurant in Antioch.
The famous Westphalian stallion hitch in Waukegan, IL, March 1968. Pictured are Phil Archdale (left) of Archdale's bar and restaurant and Rudi Kurzenberger demonstrating how a barrel was rolled in the "good old days." Dunn Museum, News Sun Collection.

For a brief shining moment, Lake County, Illinois was home to the only “Westphalische Kaltblut” (Westphalian draft horses) in America. From 1965 to the early 1970s, Meister Brau’s stallion hitch was seen throughout the Midwest. Today, the appeal continues as collectibles of Meister Brau's famous hitch remain popular with breweriana collectors.

- Diana Dretske, Curator

Special thanks to museum volunteer, Al Westerman, for research assistance! 


Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County, News Sun Collection
Lake County, Illinois Maps Online
“Pony Show Slated as Eye Catcher,” Belvidere Daily Republican, August 7, 1958.
“See the Lowenbrau Westfaelisches Kaltblut,” The Record, March 23, 1965.
“Bring on Your Beer Barrels,” Illinois Press, October 16, 1965.
“Rare Stallions Shown Here,” Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1965
“Grayslake Corners Market on Rare Westphalians,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1967.
“Special Treat: The Westphalian Horses,” Daily Herald, August 6, 1967.
“Plan Rural Farm,” Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1968.
“In Illinois State Fair Horse Show,” Daily Sentinel, August 11, 1969.
“Stallions Appearing,” Daily Calumet, May 7, 1970.
“Famed Stallions to be Displayed,” Daily Herald, July 8, 1970.
“Meister Brau’s Stallion Hitch Comes to Meadowdale,” Cardunal Free Press, Carpentersville, IL, August 7, 1970.
“Rare Westphalisches Stallions to Make First Appearance Here,” Daily Herald, November 13, 1970.
“Young at Heart Group Visit a Gem Museum,” Daily Sentinel, July 1, 1971.
“Meister Brau Westphalian Hitch at Pioneer Park,” Cardunal Free Press, July 16, 1971.
“Famous Horses in Parade,” Daily Chronical, Dekalb, Illinois, October 26, 1972.
“Meadowdale Businessman Sponsor Meister Brau Hitch,” Cardunal Free Press, June 27, 1973.
“Westphalian Hitch a Parade Special,” Arthur Graphic, Clarion, Ilinois, August 23, 1973.
“Parade at Palestone Will Feature Westphalian Hitch,” Journal Gazette, August 25, 1973.
“Midwest’s Savory Autumn,” Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1974.
“Nevermore the Local Lagers,” Richard J. LaSusa, Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1977.
“The Last Call for Chicago’s Last Brewery,” Jon Anderson, Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1979.
“Action Line,” Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1979.
“Zither Player, Yodeler Thrilled Fans for Years,” Chicago Tribune, November 27, 2003.